Corpus Christi (play)

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Date: 1998, 2001, 2010

Region: North America

Subject: Religion , Sexual/Gender Orientation

Medium: Theater


Artist: Terrence McNally/Manhattan Theater Club, Indiana University-Purdue University Fort Wayne

Confronting Bodies: Catholic League for Religious and Civil Rights, "National Security Movement of America," and other Christian protesters.

Dates of Action: 1998, 2001 and 2010

Location: Manhattan Theater Club, New York, Indiana University-Purdue University Fort Wayne, Tarleton State University in Stephenville, Texas

Description of Artwork: Corpus Christi is a contemporary version of the story of Jesus and his disciples set in the town of Corpus Christi, Texas. Jesus and some of his disciples (who in this play are young professionals) are depicted as gay men and ultimately Jesus is killed by gay-bashers. Thirteen barefoot male actors in modern clothing perform a play within a play, starting with the birth of Joshua (the Jesus figure) in a Texas motel. Soon evils emerge, such as wife-beating, loveless sex, gay-bashing and clerical humiliations. The playwright uses this parallel story of Christ to tell a contemporary, colloquial tale of the fight against cruelty, division, hatred and, above all, hypocrisy. Love and acceptance are the antidotes.


New York

The Incident: Corpus Christi, was to be premiered in the fall of 1998 at the off-Broadway theater, The Manhattan Theater Club. On May 1, 1998, an article in the New York Post headlined, "Gay Jesus May Star on B'Way." The article claimed that the play featured a Jesus-like figure "who has sex with his apostles." This instigated wide protest from the Christian right community, notably the Catholic League for Religious and Civil Rights. They called the play “insulting to Christians” and vowed to “wage a war that no one will forget” against its production. President William A. Donahue sent letters to numerous public officials demanding “an immediate halt on public monies that support the Manhattan Theater Club.” A group calling itself the "National Security Movement of America" made telephone threats against the "Jew guilty homosexual Terrence McNally." The message went on, "Because of you we will exterminate every member of the theater and burn the place to the ground."

Results of Incident: In accordance with these threats and demands, Trans World Airlines, one of the corporate sponsors of the MTC, withdrew its financial support. On May 21 the Manhattan Theater Club announced that it was canceling its production of the play due to their concern for security, after anonymous threats of violence to the theater and its staff. Playwrights, directors, club members, the media, and others heavily criticized this decision. Freedom of speech advocates, including NCAC, National Campaign for Freedom of Expression, New Yorkers for Free expression, PEN American Center, People for the American Way, Visual AIDS, playwrights Christopher Durang, William Hoffman, David Henry Hwang, Tony Kushner, and author Judy Bloom collaborated on a letter urging the Manhattan Theater Club to not cave in to terrorist-tactics. On May 28, the theater reversed its decision, claiming that they now had assurance from the police department that the production would be safe. The show ran as scheduled.

Indiana

The Incident: Similar protests transpired when students at Indiana University-Purdue University Fort Wayne planned a production of the play. In July 2001, State lawmakers made up 21 of the 32 people that filed suit against the university. The group wanted to halt the production of the controversial play. The lawsuit argued that by staging this play, taxpayer funds are being used to attack religion. Defenders of the production say it's a matter of free speech. Anthony S. Benton, an attorney for the university, said in a letter that shutting down the play would infringe on students' academic freedom. The Indiana Civil Liberties Union also is involved in the case. The group is representing the play's student director, IPFW senior Jonathan Gilbert.

Results of Incident: Indiana: The outcome of this incident has yet to unfold. Controversies over productions in other cities continue to arise.

Texas

The Incident: Tarleton State University in Texas was to put on a student-directed performance of the play, before widespread protest caused the play to shut down. While at first the Unversity supported the play as an exercise in intellectual discourse and academic freedom, the university president later denounced it, saying that "we are legally bound to allow the student production to go forward" and "I see no artistic or redeeming quality in the work." However, the University was ready to put forward the play until a member of the faculty cancelled it, citing concerns for the safety of the students involved.

Results of Incident: The play was pulled from production and not rescheduled.

Source: World Socialist Web Site (wsws.org), NCAC, Florida Atlantic University press release for their production, March 2001, Indianapolis Star, July 05, 2001, http://www.insidehighered.com/news/2010/03/29/tarleton